Chechens try to negotiate safe passage across border


RUSSIAN authorities agreed last night to open up a road for Chechen rebels holding some 160 hostages to return to their secessionist republic. ITAR-TASS reported, quoting local officials.

But it said the report could not be confirmed with negotiators, who held talks in the dark early hours of today with the group of more than 200 rebels reported to be holding up to 185 people.

Earlier as night fell, circling helicopters at the Dagestani border village of Pervomaiskaya had withdrawn and Russian troops pulled back to new positions three miles away but leaving special forces troops, in camouflage white, posted in the snow covered fields closer to the repel bus convoy. Russian television showed footage of the rebels setting up defensive positions in trenches.

Two government officials in the southern Russian republic of Dagestan talked by telephone with unnamed officials in Moscow to get Russian troops blocking the path of the buses out of the way, ITAR-TASS said, quoting Dagestani sources.

In Moscow, an angry President Yeltsin, for whom the latest hostage drama is a setback to his hopes of winning a second term as president this year, had earlier personally warned the gunmen. not to hurt the remaining hostages, 110 of whom are women. They were herded into 11 battered buses for the rebels' attempted getaway from the town of Kizlyar in Dagestan, to neighbouring Chechnya.

But tough words from the Kremlin leader only provoked the "Loan Wolves" gang of gunmen, led by Mr Salman Raduyev, to take an unspecified number of extra hostages on board when they stopped at Pervomaiskaya.

The guerrillas, who had been demanding a Russian troop withdrawal from neighbouring Chechnya, said they must be given safe passage back to Chechnya from Pervomaiskaya. They threatened to kill hostages if their demands were not met.

The Prime Minister, Mr Victor Chernomyrdin, said the "bandits" would be punished although he added: "We will not use the head on methods which could put the lives of the hostages at risk."

The prime minister is apparently in charge of the crisis since Mr Yeltsin's departure last night for France to attend a memorial mass for the late former president, Francois Mitterrand.

The military seemed to have deliberately brought the jubilant rebel convoy to a halt around midday, stopping it crossing into Chechnya. They had let the guerrillas leave a hospital in the town of Kizlyar after they released most of their 2,000 hostages.

Most of the hostages had come from Kizlyar but some had been rounded up in Pervomaiskaya itself. The guerrillas released seven Dagestani officials. They had volunteered to act as human shields when the day long siege of Kizlyar hospital ended.

The authorities had told them their present route was blocked because a bridge had been destroyed.

A Russian journalist, Ruslan Kusarov, who travelled on the convoy, said a Russian helicopter had apparently deliberately brought the bus column to a halt by firing in its direction. "The helicopter shot at us. They nearly hit us. They wanted to make us stop in this village," he said.

Earlier. smiling gunmen wearing Muslim headbands cheered, gave clenched fist salutes and waved a green Chechen flag at a television crew.

At least seven policemen and 13 local civilians had been killed in Kizlyar, an Interior Ministry spokesman said, adding 12 policemen had also been wounded and two were missing.

Switzerland. speaking as the current head of the Organisation for Security and Co operation in Europe (OSCE), yesterday condemned the mass hostage taking by the rebels and called for the revival of stalled peace talks under the mediation of the 53 nation OSCE.